- Roger Enlow
Master Naturalist Dr. Billy Teels was born to be wild
Watch your step, they warn, when you’re exploring Acton Nature Center.
It is, after all, a NATURE park. Around here, nature includes snakes (poisonous too), scorpions, spiders, skunks, bobcats, coyotes. Any signs of mountain lions? None they’re aware of. But rattlesnakes, definitely.
Texas Master Naturalist Dr. Billy Teels was leading a group of bird watchers one morning when he spotted a rattler suntanning on the trail about 30 feet ahead. They gave the reptile a wide berth. Another time, a volunteer reached down in a pile of brush and was bitten.
The rewards, however, far outweigh the risks.
Teels, the ANC guru, explains. “I’m sure that for those that don’t enjoy nature, a trip to the ANC would be just like going to a city park,” he said. “However, if you are a nature lover there are many things that will catch your eye if you only look. At the right time of the year the butterfly garden is spectacular with many different types of flowering plants and butterflies. The spring wildflowers begin to carpet the ANC in April and last until May when a different group of plants begin to bloom. Between the end of April and the end of July a person can sit in the bird blind and just about be guaranteed of seeing a painted bunting—one of the most attractive birds in North America. In winter, many different kinds of native sparrows use the feeders, and if you’re lucky you might get to see one of them picked off by a Cooper’s or sharp-shinned hawk.
“The highlight of our last bird walk was a pair of coyotes that bound up from the grass and ran to the tree line where they stopped and watched us for a few seconds before slipping into the woods. And, a bobcat comes to the bird blind occasionally, oblivious to the watchers in the blind.”
Teels guides a dedicated team of wildlife and nature lovers who share their knowledge and enthusiasm so others can enjoy experiencing the 74-acre nature preserve near deCordova Bend Estates off Fall Creek Highway southeast of Granbury.
Teels, with an impressive biology portfolio, leads bird walks and teaches classes through ANC. That’s where Dave Moore, ANC’s current president, met him.
“If I was going to describe Billy in two words he’s a ‘walking encyclopedia,’” Moore said. “There’s not anything you can’t ask him he wouldn’t know.”
After retirement Teels became involved in the ANC through the Rio Brazos Chapter of the Texas Master Naturalists.
“After retiring, I was looking for a few things to do that would be productive and enjoyable,” Teels said. “The Master Naturalists seemed like a nice fit, given my training and background, and the ANC seemed like a logical place to do something on the ground conservation because of its proximity and being part of my community.
Most of Teels’ accomplishments at the ANC have been through the Master Naturalists and Friends of Acton Nature Center (FoANC).
“We have many material accomplishments, such as moving in the old farmhouse that we use as our Education Center, constructing the bird blind and water feature, maintaining the trails and vegetation, and developing the signage and interpretation,” Teels said. “We participate in regularly scheduled work days to maintain all those features. We also have annual events that are open to the public, such as Feather Fest, the Monarch Day, the Star Party and Earth Science day. We also provide education to the ANC Children’s Program (Homeschoolers) monthly and to the public schools at their request.”
In 2008 Teels began conducting First Saturday Bird Walks. If he’s not there to lead the walks, Dave and Wendy Moore fill in.
“We typically get anywhere from around 10 people to as many as 25,” Teels said. “The walks begin at 7 a.m. on the first Saturday of every month and end around 10 a.m. The walks are open to the public, and anyone can attend—young or old. Everyone who goes on the walk gets a report emailed to them within a day or two of the walk, detailing the species and numbers of birds observed, a description of the walk and its highlights, and bird photos that have been taken by some of our accomplished Master Naturalist photographers, such as Gary Marks, Wendy Moore, Mark Bishop, Chris Inbody and Jake Balmuth.”
Also in 2008, Master Naturalists erected 37 bluebird nesting boxes at the ANC, and they monitor all 37 twice per month from the beginning of the nesting season in March through July. With help from several assistants Teels has collected 15 years of data on the species that use the boxes, which boxes are used and which are not, the number of eggs laid, hatched, and fledged, and the number that are predated or abandoned.
“All this information goes into a database so we can track ups and downs in nesting success over the years,” Teels said.
Teels, 75, was born and raised in Arapaho, Oklahoma, a rural community about 100 miles west of Oklahoma City. Nature was everywhere for young Teels to explore. Canyons were in all directions from his house, and Beaver Creek was about a mile east of town.
“My parents encouraged me to play outdoors with my friends, and we spent most of our childhood summers at the local swimming hole at the creek where we swam, fished, and caught crayfish and grasshoppers for bait,” Teels remembers. “When I was in grade school, for one of my birthdays, my mother gave me a couple of small books on ‘Birds of America,’ and almost instantly I became a birder. Although the books weren’t very comprehensive, I tried to see every bird in them. My father also spent a lot of time with me quail hunting and fishing, mostly with his friends who treated me as if I were one of their own. Looking back at it, I don’t see how I could have not had a deep interest in nature, although I didn’t know it at the time.”
Teels majored in biology at Southwestern Oklahoma State University where he was encouraged by the biology staff to pursue a path in conservation. His adviser, Dr. Robert Lynn, gave him a special project to survey breeding birds on a 40-acre plot a few miles north of the university. The results of that study were published in Audubon Field Notes that provided Teels a little credential for when he applied to graduate school at Mississippi State University under the head of the Wildlife and Fisheries Department, Dr. Dale H. Arner.
Arner had worked for the Soil Conservation Service (SCS) as a state biologist in Alabama and had a wealth of experience and knowledge in wildlife management. Through his mentorship, Teels received a master’s and doctorate from Mississippi State. After graduating from Mississippi State he spent a short time as a wildlife consultant, and one of his first contracts was with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Soil Conservation Service conducting a biological assessment for a Small Watershed Program project.
With that experience, in June 1974, he was hired by SCS in a permanent position as a biologist on the Watershed Planning Staff in Jackson, Mississippi.
After spending a couple of years as a watershed biologist, he was promoted to staff biologist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), Ecological Sciences Division, in Washington, D.C. There he worked with the national biologist in developing biology policy and procedures for NRCS programs, and was the NRCS national lead for aquatic biology and aquaculture.
After spending four years in the NRCS National Office, he became the NRCS State Biologist in Oklahoma, but in1986, he went back to the national office as the national biologist just after passage of the 1985 Farm Bill.
He and his wife Phyllis moved to Granbury at that time and he retired from NRCS in 2007 after 33 years of service.
“All in all, I had a very rewarding career, allowing me to work in the field with the plants and animals I love.”
Acton Nature Center, located at 6900 Smoky Hill Court, Granbury, is open seven days a week from dawn to dusk. Admission is free.